Santa Ana Drags...
The End of an Era
by Don Prieto - 1999
Forty years ago, this past June
21, Santa Ana Drags closed its doors permanently. The first organized
drag strip, founded by C.J. "Pappy" Hart, Creighton
Hunter and Frank Stillwell ended its nine-year run and closed
out a chapter of drag racing that many refer to as the formative
Closer and certainly cleaner
than the dusty dry lake beds in the Mojave Desert, Santa Ana
Drags provided early drag racing its gestation place at the old
Orange County Airport auxiliary runway. And while the airport
is still there, it has become one of the busiest of its kind
in the country.
Like the dry lakes racing from
which it was formed, hot rods at Santa Ana often raced five and
six abreast but this proved to be very unsafe. Another unusual
aspect of the drags on the runway was "rolling starts".
Fragile gears in early ford transmissions, which most hot rods
used, were prone to break when making an all out launch from
a dead stop, so competitors would form up on the slight downhill
portion of the staging area. The racers would look at each other
to see if the other one was ready. Each would nod and release
the brakes, rolling toward the flagman standing in the center
of the strip. At the wave of the flag the race was on. The starter
(usually C.J. Hart) had the right to declare a false start and
rerun the race.
Since the strip measured only
top speed at the end of the quartermile, there were no elapsed
times. Only after other strips, like Saugus and Lions, adopted
standing starts did Santa Ana Drags start measuring e.t.s.
Competitors at Santa Ana saw a very quick progression of vehicle
modification. Starting out there were the hot street coupes and
roadsters of the day along with the Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs,
followed quickly by the thingies which were little more that
a frame, motor and drivers seat. The "Bug" of Dick
Kraft (pictured here in this article) was the first of many stripped
down "jobs" that showed up to race. And its plain to
see that little attention was paid to safety in those early years.
Several milestones were established
in the drag racing history books at this drag strip. The most
memorable run was made by Don Yates in the "Lakewood Muffler"
Clark Cagle and Yates brothers Ardun powered "thingie"
as it turned in a speed of 140 miles per hour. This run came
right on the heels of an article by Roger Huntington that boldly
stated that a drag racer would never achieve that speed. He (Roger)
theorized that it was mathmatically impossible because it would
require a traction coefficient in excess of "one".
So much for slide rule theories applying to drag racing.
It wasn't but a few weeks later
that Art Chrisman exceeded 144 mph and later the same year the
"Bean Bandits" upped the record to 148. Ollie Morris
officially set the record at 150 the following year. All accomplished
with recapped slicks, flathead Fords and nitromethane. By the
end of the Santa Ana chapter in drag racing, track operator C.
J. Hart had agreed with Mickey Thompson and several other local
Southern California drag strip operators to ban nitromethane
in accord with the increasingly powerful National Hot Rod Association,
the sanctioning body of record for most drag strips.
In the short span of nine years
that was the limited days of Santa Ana, there was a tremendous
change and settling down of the rules of racing. Two cars side
by side from a standing start, instead of the hoi poloi of 5
6 facing off. The safety rules came into being, producing such
life-saving devices as helmets, roll bars, seat belts, scattershields,
safety hubs, fuel shutoffs as well as fencing off the spectator
area so as to minumize risk from an errant drag racer. Elapsed
times were measured and became standardized. Records were established
and classes of racing designated along with Eliminator categories.
Drag racing came a long way during the days when the Orange County
Airport auxiliary runway was commandeered to "get the kids
off the street".
The final chapter in the saga
of Santa Ana was witness by its biggest crowd ever and the turnout
of racers was the who's who of the times. Lefty Mudersbach and
his twin Chevy, Jack Chrisman driving Joe Mailliards "Sidewinder",
Dode Martin and Jim Nelson with their Dragmaster and Dragliner
cars, and Jack Hart with his Blown Chevy "Giant Killer.
That last drag race had its moments
and certainly didn't dissappoint the many spectators. Jim Nelson
set fast time at 163.63 and crashed the Dragmaster when the brakes
failed after eliminating Lefty Mudersbachs twin Chevy. Co-founder
Creighton Hunter took his first ride in a racecar since crashing
his pie-shaped sidewinder and Jack Chrisman won Top Eliminator
beating the blown Cadillac powered rig of Glen Ward. The winning
elapsed time was 9.20 and top speed was 157.89. Jacks winning
car, the Chrysler powered "Sidewinder" of Joe Mailliard
also set the final low e.t. record at 9.16 seconds.
As Santa Ana came to a close, the racing continued shifting locations
to places like Lions in Long Beach that opened in 1955, San Gabriel,
Bakersfield, Taft where C.J. Hart landed, Colton, Riverside,
Pomona and San Fernando. The cradle of drag racing had lost its
first real drag strip to progress and urban sprawl.
It was the first of many terrific
Southern California drag strips to meet this fate.
It was certainly great while